Senior Fellow Rights a Decades Old Wrong

Samueli Institute 8 April 2013

Alexandria, VA:Today millions of cultural, religious and historical items plundered by the Nazis still have not been returned to their rightful owners. One such item landed in the hands of Samueli Institute Senior Fellow Niko Kohls, PhD. The book Experienced and Perceived was obtained from an antiques dealer by the library of the Institute of Psychology at the Free University of Berlin. The university put the book up for sale in an online auction and Kohls jumped at the opportunity. When the book arrived Kohls noticed that the book was stamped with the previous owner’s name, Leopold Scheyer. Kohls then enlisted his colleague Karin Andert to learn more about Scheyer. The two scientists learned that he was a Jewish pharmacist and that the book, which was written in 1920 by Wilhem Wundt, one of the founding fathers of academic psychology, turned out to be registered as Nazi loot at the Berlin NS Loot Project.

“Books are like our present witnesses, voices from the past. In themselves inconspicuous, normal books can tell a story, we only need to be ready to listen to them,” said Kohls.

Kohls and Andert found out that this book’s story dated back to the Holocaust. It was taken from Jewish pharmacist Leopold Scheyer’s once extensive science library as a consequence of his disownment. After fleeing to Holland in 1939, Scheyer took his own life when threatened with deportation in 1943. Two years later his wife Nanny Scheyer died in a concentration camp in Holland, but their children and grandchildren fled to safety. 

Together with the Berlin NS Loot Project, Kohls and Andert tracked down one of Scheyer’s granddaughters in the United Kingdom, Dr. Edith Wiener, who accepted the book in the name of two great-grandchildren who live in the United States. The book was returned at a small ceremony during a scientific conference.

Being respectful of the ancestors’ right to the book was of especial importance to Andert and Kohls whose work for Samueli Institute is on how mindfulness can initiate and support healing processes. For Kohls the return of the book is not about the return of an object but an acknowledgement of the immeasurable suffering for the Scheyer family.

“Books often bear traces of the user and are therefore of particular and immediate importance to the descendants. Often, it is the only personal record of a lost childhood or adolescence,” he said.  

While World War II and the Nazi regime is over, the wounds – both visible and invisible – are still evident. Returning a single book may seem small given the scope of loss and destruction, but it’s a way to facilitate healing processes.

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